Sunday, December 19, 2004

Winning in the Streets

Winning in the Streets

In Ukraine, they know how to respond to a rigged election.

by Geov Parrish

December 15 - 21, 2004

While disgruntled Kerry supporters are still muttering about Ohio recounts, touch-screen voting machines, and all manner of perceived electoral corruption, and while Democrats of all stripes still fume over the stolen election of 2000, the chosen course of action has been to do nothing.

In Ukraine this month, we learned what's possible if a wronged electoral candidate actually does something about it.

The wronged candidate was Viktor Yushchenko, who lost a Nov. 21 presidential election to Viktor Yanukovich, the candidate supported by the current president and government and by neighboring Russia. The election was widely condemned as marred by voter fraud, and Yushchenko's supporters took to the streets, protesting in cities across the country and clogging the main square in the capital city of Kiev with an estimated quarter-million demonstrators. Many of those demonstrators camped out for days, withstanding cold and snow to demand a new election and a new government.

They got their wish. On Dec. 3, Ukraine's highest court threw out the tainted election and ordered a runoff between Yushchenko and Yanukovich on Dec. 26. Negotiators for Yushchenko and the current president, Leonid Kuchma, ushered through parliament and into law a sweeping set of constitutional changes that will expand parliamentary power and rein in the power of Ukraine's president.

None of it would have been possible without the crowds, which effectively nullified a declared Yanukovich victory and changed the government. In the process, they also triggered an international crisis, with Western governments echoing the claims of electoral malfeasance and Russia favoring the current Moscow-backed government. Talk even arose of the country splitting, with the more nationalist areas in the country's west aligning themselves with Yushchenko and the Russian-speaking areas in the east with Yanukovich.

In the end, the crowds and the threat of an ungovernable country led to a court decision and the sweeping constitutional changes. Yushchenko's "Orange Revolution" will now almost certainly win the Dec. 26 revote, and it will be seen as a popular repudiation of the strong-armed government of Kuchma. The government, essentially, will have been overthrown, and it will have been done without a single shot being fired.

It all makes me wonder what would have to happen to trigger such a popular uprising here. What level of irrefutable voting fraud would have to be proven to drive people into the streets? One of the unlikely heroes of the Ukraine uprising is a state television sign-language interpreter, who began signing on the air that the telecast was lies and that she wouldn't go along with it any longer. Inspired by her actions, 200 journalists for state-run TV and radio vowed to no longer act as the government's mouthpiece. How many bland White House assertions that the sky is green and the grass is blue would it take to drive someone at Fox News to denounce the status quo like that?

The difference, of course, is history. After hundreds of years of rule by Moscow, independence is a cherished thing in Ukraine. After 80 years of communist rule, most Ukrainians well understand the dangers of autocratic government or state-controlled media lies. Democracy is not taken for granted.

In America, by contrast, we have no such history, and instead of skepticism about authority, our heads are swelled from birth with jingoistic bilge about how perfect American democracy is, how great and infallible our country is, how righteous is our form of government. For all the decades of conservatives bashing big government, we have surprisingly little skepticism, and for all the triumph of our popular will, we have a surprisingly widespread belief that there's nothing ordinary people here can do to change things.

But the demonstrators on that Ukrainian plaza were also ordinary people. They took time off from their jobs and their studies to protest, because in the face of a corrupt government, they believed that their voices could make a difference.

The unaccountable governments of the 21st century are those bloated by corporate influence, and in recent years a series of popular uprisings across South America has replaced such governments with ones skeptical of American corporate policy. As with Ukraine, it's ordinary people who made the difference. What would it take—how many wars, how much fiscal recklessness, how much bald corruption and crass redistricting, how many increases in state influence—for Americans to discover our own power?

Here in the self-styled exporter of democracy to the world, we ordinary people have forgotten our power. That's why episodes like Ukraine matter. They remind us of what democracy can be.